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Primitivity of medieval romance

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The Romantic era saw a wave of primitivism sweep through its literature and art. The dissatisfaction of the present led to a glorification of the past, and it was explored and philosophized by looking at the ‘noble savage’. However, a branch of primitivism arose which looked, rather, at England’s own past for its ideal situation. These were considered new concepts, but perhaps there was a harbinger to this mode of thought. Indeed, glimpsing the past, or revisiting the past in an ideal manner began much before the Romantic era: an excellent example of this is seen in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Spenser’s master work was meant as a Christian allegory, with little political scraps thrown in to the whole, but Spenser chose the medieval world of King Arthur to set his tale, and he chose an archaic language by which to fashion his tale. This is a form of primitivism.

Primitivism as a movement began in the Romantic era, in the eighteenth century. As England saw more and more report of their colonies which harbored savage races of people, the fascination grew. The natives of North America, for instance, were seen as being proud, noble, tied to no one and nothing, and living a pure and innocent life off the land. The same things were being said about South American natives, African natives, and Australian natives, among others. But there began a feudal offshoot of Primitivism which took the feudal era as being something of an ideal system. Edmund Burke writes about his ideal as being “indeed a contract … it is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.” (Wu, 7) What he is describing here is the tenant-lord relationship in the manorial system of the feudal era. The idea of being responsible to one person whom you interact with regularly and whom is responsible to you, as well, was a very attractive idea to Romantics. It was simple in comparison, but it was not the first era to find the past attractive.

Spenser’s most important work begins its primitivistic look with just that: its look. It is easy to read through The Faerie Queene and mistake one word for another, and even one letter for another, for Spenser employs an archaic language which had long gone ‘out of style’, or had never been in style:

But how long time, said then the elfin knight,

Are you in this misformed house to dwell?

We may not chaunge (quoth he) this euil plight,

Till we be bathed in a liuing well;

That is the terme prescribed by the spell.

O how, said he, mote I that well out find,

That may restore you to your wonted well?

Time and suffised fates to former kind

Shall vs restore, none else from hence may vs vnbyned. (I, III, verse 44)

To some modern readers this would be entirely illegible. One may notice immediately that many of the V’s are U’s, and U’s are V’s; there are e’s at the end of words which should not be there; and words such as ‘mote’ which few modern readers would understand off hand. These peculiarities are all remnants of an older style of writing. Also, one may notice in many instance such as “we be bathed”, and “wonted well”, and “fates to former kind”. These, and even more blatant examples of alliteration, can be found littered throughout the text, and this too, hearkens to an earlier form of writing: specifically, the old anglo-saxon verse which produced such works as Beowulf. And what these oddities of language describe is no less archaic and primitive.

The Faerie Queene is a Christian allegory which espouses different character traits which Spenser believes to be those of the true and ideal Christian, and the fact that Spenser has chosen a medieval era as the best manner and setting to put forth his sermon is testimony to the primitivistic qualities of the work. The story follows knights which wander in a pastoral medieval landscape. Book one’s main character is the Redcrosse Knight whom is the personification of holinesse (or, at least, he becomes so at the end of the book when he has learned all the lessons set out for him to learn). The next knight of major import is Britomart, a female knight who personifies chastity. Along the way the reader meets many other knights of not-so-good qualities, evil temptress women, terrible enchanters, satyrs, lions, giants, and even Merlin and some of better quality, like King Arthur themselves. Even though Spenser poetically calls on the muses at the beginning of his work, The Faerie Queene is decided medieval:Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,As time her taught in lowly Shepheards weeds,Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;Whose praises having slept in silence long,Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areedsTo blazon broad emongst her learned throng:Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song. (ll. 1 – 9)By calling forth the muses in his attempt, Spenser actually is looking backwards to two different ‘ideal’ eras. He mentions knights and ladies which hearkens, of course, to a medieval setting and time period, but the muses are decided Greek in origin, and thus he is perhaps also wishing to employ the possibly simpler, purer ideas of the Greek writers and of the ancient Greek life in general. His primitivistic ties to these eras is unknown; however, it is clear that Spenser believed Greek and specifically Medieval setting to be the ideal setting from which to teach the Christian values he advocates in The Faerie Queene.

The question which must be asked, rather than motive, however, is simply: is this method Spenser has used effective in his aims? Obviously, this question must be definitively answered individually by every reader. But it is possible to get a sense of the probability of how well The Faerie Queene achieved its ends. The first evidence to its effectiveness is in its popularity. The masterpiece has been called just that, and has held its popularity high through over four centuries of other writers seeking to duplicate and outdo their forerunners. But aside from the simple popularity of the poem, which does not necessarily mean the message was transmitted clearly, is the poem successful? It is. And the evidence of it comes approximately three centuries after The Faerie Queene was published when Romanticists began idolizing the natives of North America and their savage way of life. Writers such as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley have since created works which have moved and affected emotions in readers until the present day, and their method for doing so was in their glorification of a simple past which either was the setting for their works, or was the tool which affected the emotions. The effect of these poems is unquestioned, and Spenser has employed the same means in The Faerie Queene. The landscape is of the Medieval era, and heroes are knights, and both of these things are idolized fully:By this the Northerne wagoner had setHis seuenfold teme behind the stedfast starre,That was in Ocean waues yet neuer wet,But firme is fixt, and sendeth light from farreTo all, that in the wide deepe wandring arre:And chearefull Chaunticlere with his note shrillHad warned once, that Pheobus fiery carreIn hast was climbing vp the Easterne hill,Full enuious that night so long his roome did fill. (I, II, verse 1)The language is plainly lofty and praising: Spenser employs a medieval landscape, which he praises, and thus, The Faerie Queene is very much a primitivistic work, and is, by association with the unquestioned works which would follow in the later centuries, effective.

When Wordsworth wrote works like “Michael”, or Mary Shelly wrote works such as “Frankenstein”, they were not thinking of a specific time or place as an ideal. This was done mostly by the philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. And also Edmund Spenser. The Faerie Queene is unquestionably a work of primitivism by its medieval setting, which includes knights, damsels in distress, villains and monsters of all sorts, and also by its archaic language which marks it as ‘old fashioned’ without even having to read it. What exactly primitivism effects in others is mostly unknown, or specific to the reader, but it generally has to do with the simplicity of life in earlier times. In this sense, Spenser chose maybe the perfect way to express his complicated Christian beliefs.

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